The Ides of March have come again and in Chicago one thing seems clear, the past week has done Tom Thibodeau no favors. Since an overtime win in Philadelphia against the Sixers in which he should have packed it in, admitted defeat, and rested veterans, his coaching flaws have been on display in a concentrated form. Friday saw the Bulls on the road again, playing down to their competition and embarrassingly out-rebounded by a below-average Hornets team that was missing several key front-court players. In a third straight road game Sunday, the Bulls were again on the wrong end of a lopsided rebounding stat line, granted against a legitimate championship contender. Blame must fall to the players, but there is enough to go around for Thibodeau as well. Short-handed or not, his rotations lack foresight.
March has not been a kind month to the Chicago Bulls by any means. It began with a disappointing and costly defeat at home to the Los Angeles Clippers, which saw team scoring leader Jimmy Butler sidelined 3-6 weeks with an elbow injury. Sunday’s loss punctuated the midway point of the month, as the Bulls fell to the Thunder 109-100 in Oklahoma City. With that loss the Bulls are now 1-5 in the last ten days, 3-6 this month, and 40-28 overall. Taj Gibson’s imminent return should take some pressure off of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in terms of minutes. However, as long as return dates for either Butler or Derrick Rose remain uncertain, Gasol especially will continue to be relied on to carry the team offensively. With all the bad breaks, it’s easy to forget just how impressive these same Bulls looked during their December winning streak.
As is the annual custom, much of Chicago reveled in real or, just as likely, adopted Irishness this weekend. This year more than most, I had Shakespeare on my mind instead. Sunday, as many Bulls fans nursed hangovers, why was I contemplating the Bard? Because what is transpiring as Tom Thibodeau’s tenure as Bulls head coach comes to a close reads like a sports version of his Julius Caesar. That statement may ultimately prove to be hyperbolic or at the very least overly metaphoric, but hear me out.
The 2015 portion of the Bulls 2014-15 season has largely been defined by a thinly veiled proxy war acted out in the local media between Tom Thibodeau and his supporters on one side and General Manager Gar Forman, team President John Paxson, and their own contingent on the other. What little communication is taking place isn’t constructive, leaving little hope for reconciliation. So, with Tom Thibideau as our Caesar in this metaphor, GarPax assumes the role of Cassius. The metaphor could stop right there and everything would be understandable enough, but – taking the metaphor to the next level – a scenario exists in which the Bulls mirror Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy even more closely.
Here’s a quick and dirty Julius Caesar summary from 5:49 to 6:56.
Just as there is no plot to Julius Caesar without Brutus, it’s almost impossible to imagine a Thibodeau-coached Bulls team without Joakim Noah. Noah is the quintessential Thidobeau guy, seemingly playing beyond hard. Yet, this season Noah has been unable to dial the energy level to eleven as he has in past seasons. Additionally, he has had to sit out a significant amount of practices in order to be healthy enough to play in games. That new reality, further complicated with the addition of Pau Gasol as a veteran presence, has changed the dynamic for Noah. While he may still feel loyalty towards Thibs, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which Noah is convinced that firing Thibs could be best for the team’s chances to win a championship, just as Brutus became convinced killing his friend would be best for Rome. Knowing the type of guy that Noah is, it’s conceivable he may say as much publicly should a coaching change take place.
On the other hand, Derrick Rose’s oratory will never be mistaken for Marc Antony’s “Friends, Countrymen, Romans…” monologue and yet his endlessly loyal contingent of fans and supporters, as well as his cachet and name recognition to national audiences, makes Rose a suitable stand-in for the powerful and popular General Antony. Assuming an in-season firing would result in an interim head coach rather than a permanent solution (read NCAA Tournament 3 Seed Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg), without Thibs Rose may misguidedly take it upon himself to assert himself as the team’s leader. Should he continue to publicly be at odds with GarPax it’s likely D-Rose would wax nostalgic for the Thibodeau era in another awkward press conference. Tensions between the frustrated star player and an exasperated front office would worsen, undermining the interim coach in the process.
Here’s where the salary cap reality takes over allowing the rest of this tragedy to play out. Without Thibs as a scapegoat, added pressure will inevitably fall on GarPax. Needing to resign Jimmy Bulter – spoiler alert, Octavius in this staging – to a max or near max deal they may feel desperate, leading them to pull the trigger on a Joakim Noah trade. Beloved as Noah is, if the package doesn’t seem adequate enough in return, fans could turn against GarPax en masse and demand their ouster for the perceived treachery. Of course there are perfectly good reasons to consider moving on from Noah. Not only is he due a contract in 2016, he is also a big man with tons of mileage and a substantial injury history.
Assuming that the early reports of a 4-year deal are true for Butler, that immediately makes him the only player on the Bulls roster currently under contract for the 2018-19 season. The contract won’t make Butler more highly paid than Rose, but it will solidify Butler as the player and leader that the Bulls intend to make their cornerstone to build around moving forward. Like Antony and Octavius, this highly paid backcourt will be expected to work together towards a championship. It’s anyone’s guess whether they will be able to or whether jealousy gets the better of one or both of them first.
There is one more character to introduce, the wise elder statesman in this story, Cicero. Perhaps you have already guessed that it’s Pau Gasol. Gasol isn’t calling for Thibodeau’s head, but he has certainly made his feelings about the coach’s shortcomings known. Additionally, his mere presence as a championship-winning veteran has changed the locker room chemistry. Of course, players still view Noah as the team’s de facto leader and Rose as the incumbent star, but Gasol complicates all that. Another way in which Gasol is like Cicero, as a 34 year-old big man with a player option he may or may not exercise (with the cap expanding he may well garner more than $7.7 million even as 36 year-old) for 2016-17, he will not be around to be a potential leader instead of Butler, leaving our Octavius to be the foundation of a more competitive team.
Will any of this actually transpire? One element will. Sooner or later, Tom Thidobeau will be removed as head coach of the Bulls. After last week’s outcomes, I have come to the conclusion that firing Thibodeau, killing Caesar as it were, is necessary sooner rather than later. Do I want to see GarPax sacked and Noah traded? I hope not, but I acknowledge the potential. Am I certain that Rose will never return to his old form and that the best years still lie ahead for Butler? No, but I believe that those are both pretty safe bets. Do I believe that Gasol has been an positive influence on the team despite inadvertently undermining some of Thibodeau’s authority? I most certainly do.
Now to wreck the whole Ides of March metaphor. The Chicago Bulls are not the Roman Republic. Jerry Reinsdorf is still Chairman. He is loyal and a source of stability for the organization. Occasionally loyal to a fault, Reinsdorf will likely allow Thidobeau to be spared the ax longer than he should be. Had it been up to me though, Tom Thibodeau would have had cause to “beware the Ides of March.”